The Washington Post

Retired fed celebrates 35 years with transplanted kidney; health insurance helped


Tom Cooper is a lucky man.

Thirty-five years is a long time to be walking around with someone else's organ. Transplanted kidneys often don’t last so long.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

Among the things this retired federal employee has to be thankful for, including his brother who donated a kidney to Cooper in 1979, is the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP). Its prescription drug coverage allows him to get the medicine too many kidney patients can’t afford.

That points to a divide in the nation’s health system that can punish the uninsured in the most mean-spirited way — early death.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” said Cooper, 61, a former Bureau of Prisons employee living in Fredericksburg, Va.

Tom Cooper has survived for 35 years as a kidney transplant patient. (Suzanne Carr Rossi/THE FREE LANCE STAR)

It didn’t always seem that way.

Though he and his family didn’t realize it, his kidneys apparently began deteriorating when he was 9 months old, the result of crystallizing sulfa drugs. Cooper didn’t know anything was wrong with his kidneys until he was 14. Long suffering with respiratory problems, he passed out and was taken to the hospital where he stayed for two weeks. That’s when he found out his kidneys were slowly failing.

He recalls being told by a doctor, “You probably won’t live until you’re 24.”

The doctor was almost right.

When Cooper was 24, he suffered from ankle swelling and severe exhaustion.

“By the time I realized what was going on and went to the doctor, I was pretty much in heart failure and kidney failure and probably was two, three days away from dying at that point,” he recalled.

Dialysis saved his life, at least temporarily.

Dialysis is a life-saving procedure for many, a technological miracle that cleans a patient’s blood when the kidneys can’t. But it wasn’t working well enough for Cooper. By age 26, he wouldn’t live much longer.

“It works well for some and for others not so well, and I guess I fell into the latter category,” Cooper said.

His brother Ed, then just 18 years old, was asked if he’d donate one of his kidneys to Tom.

“It was really a pretty simple decision for me,” said Ed, now a Nashville businessman. “Tom was dying.”

Humans come equipped with two kidneys, but need only one.

While Ed’s kidney has renewed life for Tom, it has in no way interfered with Ed’s life.

“I’ve never had any problems,” Ed said, “never been limited in any way. I’ve played sports . . . raised three kids. It’s basically an afterthought.”

Now the brothers “promote organ donation and transplant education with our story,” said Tom, noting that March was National Kidney Month and April is Donate Life Month.

Tom has written a memoir that covers his transplant and other experiences. “Miracle at Exit Number 3” is named for the Interstate 24 exit that cut his Paducah, Ky., family farm in two.

“Part of our story is to encourage potential donors that longevity of their gift is possible," Cooper said. “Their gift may sustain the recipient’s health for decades and allow children and grandchildren to thank the donor for their gift of life so long ago.”

After the transplant, Cooper married and had children, so “that gift of life to me gives life to others as well,” he said.

He knows that gift might not have lasted so long without FEHBP’s prescription drug coverage. Many others aren’t so fortunate. Medicare covers anti-rejection medication for three years after a transplant, saidHarold Helderman, a nephrologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville where Cooper had his surgery. Helderman said studies show poor and uninsured people have lower rates of survival after the Medicare coverage expires.

If those patients don’t keep taking medication that allows their bodies to accept a foreign kidney, they might have to go on dialysis, which Medicare does cover. But dialysis has lower survival rates and is much more expensive than the anti-rejection medication.

Medicare’s limited drug coverage is “penny wise and pound foolish,” Helderman said.

Cooper didn’t have to worry about his drug coverage because of his federal employee benefits.

“That’s one of the reasons I decided to work in law enforcement and the federal government,” he said, “to ensure we had health insurance for our family.”

Even now, with the Affordable Care Act taking effect, not everyone has that choice.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
We'll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can't shake that many.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking to a group of reporters about his strategy to regain support after a poor performance in the last debate
Fact Checker
Sanders’s claim that Clinton objected to meeting with ‘our enemies’
Sanders said that Clinton was critical of Obama in 2008 for suggesting meeting with Iran. In fact, Clinton and Obama differed over whether to set preconditions, not about meeting with enemies. Once in office, Obama followed the course suggested by Clinton, abandoning an earlier position as unrealistic.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.